Truth or Dare?
Is there something fishy about Catfish? The enigmatically titled micro budget documentary wowed Sundance last January and set off a bidding war – Hollywood hotshot Brett Ratner taking on Lost guru JJ Abrams and winning that battle.
At the time, the phrase “the next Paranormal Activity” kept popping up. Was that a coded acknowledgement that the film (which showed in the documentary section of the festival) was faked?
Now, we all knew Paranormal Activity was made up, right? That is, unless you believe in Blair Witches and The Fourth Kind. In those cases, the elaborately faked reality of the moviemaking enhanced the experience of watching a spooky story unfold – but we were all in on the joke.
At Sundance Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) reportedly told the filmmakers he thought Catfish was the best faux documentary he had ever seen, and ever since critics and bloggers have kept that line of enquiry alive. But all the while the three filmmakers adamantly denied any staging or fixing. They found an ally in documentarian Andrew Jarecki (Capturing The Friedmans), who helped them out in post-production and opined “these are not the kind of boys who want to trick the public”. Jarecki’s film, of course, was based on home video footage accumulated over years of obsessive shooting by the Friedmans themselves – apparently that is what Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are like too.
Fair to say the jury is still out on Catfish’s authenticity – you will find my conclusions in the review of the film elsewhere on Lovefilm.com. More pertinent, maybe, is the question of whether it matters.
Of course, nobody likes to be lied to – that’s a gut response the movie itself explores. But is the film itself invalidated if it’s a work of fiction? After all, don’t we usually prize storytelling for its imagination – by definition, its unreality?
The question has come up a few times this year. There was much consternation and even anger over Casey Affleck’s fly-on–the-wall portrait of his brother in law Joachin Phoenix, I’m Still Here… a fake documentary that took in quite a few movie critics before the filmmakers came clean. (In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman, chided Affleck for not attempting an intervention, and in the next breath declared that “the film’s unflinching honesty is, in the end, its own justification”. Wrong on both counts!)
The Guardian’s Xan Brooks was astute enough to see it was probably fabricated, but decided the film was still true: “Phoenix is an actor in crisis playing an actor in crisis because he’s an actor in crisis”, which may or may not be the case, but does recognise that a hoax is not necessarily the same thing as a prank.
For me, I’m Still Here was further evidence of Phoenix’s astonishing talent and a legitimate response to the insanity bubble of celebrity, but the movie sorely lacked the satiric genius of a Sacha Baron Cohen or Messrs Coogan and Brydon in The Trip – a far more subtle, nuanced and – btw – hilarious journey into the vales of star persona and personal identity.
Then there was Banksy’s semi-brilliant Exit Through the Gift Shop, a real doc about fake artists, or a fake doc about real artists – or a bit of both?
Regardless of whether it was shot by Thierry Guetta or not (someone else with video-diarrhea!), the footage of guerrilla street artists in action in the 80s and 90s was obviously authentic and made for visually exciting frontline reportage, while the second half of the film – the account of how Guetta became an “artist”, Mr Brainwash, or MBW – was obviously staged and much less interesting… Except that MBW does exist, has staged shows, and even sold paintings (though not so many as you might assume from the film).
Part of the reason that MBW seems to me a very bad artist, is that his work isn’t really his at all: he photocopies iconic imagery and scrawls slogans over them – how original is that? Which brings us right back to ideas about authenticity and fraud, and reminds me of maybe the year’s most tantalizing movie on the topic, Abbas Kiarostami’s bone-fide non-fiction film, Certified Copy.
Kiarostami has been playing on the blurry edges of fact and fiction for twenty years or more – see his 1990 masterpiece Close Up, a dramatic recreation of a real incident in which a fan passed himself off as a famous reallife Iranian filmmaker in which the fan, and the filmmaker, played themselves.
Recently he has concentrated on such minimalist films that there scarcely seems to be a distinction. Making his first Western-financed European feature, he created a scenario that could only be understood as two mutually incompatible stories: in one two strangers pretend to be an alienated married couple; in the other they’re only pretending to be strangers. Meanwhile they examine a series of Italian artworks (few of which we see in close up), some of them genuine, some fake, and debate not so much their authenticity, but their value.
As I say, this is a fiction film – and we know that these are actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) only pretending to be a couple – or pretending to pretend to be a couple, if you prefer to read the film that way. But whichever way you read it, don’t their dialogues still ring true?
The film is full of mannerisms typical of Kiarostami – long conversations shot on a winding country road, for example – as if to suggest that on some level the director felt bound to copy himself for his loyal art house audience. Only recently did I read that the film is actually a remake of Kiarostami’s first Iranian movie, which has never been seen in the UK. In other words, it’s a genuine reproduction: a “certified copy”, just like it says on the tin.
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